It’s been a while since I last drank ayahuasca. The stinky stuff changed my life but I’m scared shitless of taking it again. And now, when I feel that I could really benefit once more, I just cannot bring myself to drink the wicked healing brew.
Maybe I’m being a bit of a pussy. But even the potentially game-changing properties of that murky, mercurial, magic potion cannot convince me to face the demons that will inevitably plague my visions, thoughts and body for what will seem like forever.
The daimistas call it ‘work’ but that’s not the half of it. Work is doing something you don’t like for a while. Drinking ayahuasca is the most terrifying experience of your life.
At least it is for me, and I’m pretty sure I can’t be alone. Can I?
It baffles me how some people come out of a ceremony having spent hours being caressed by angels inside a velvet-lined light-filled heart-shaped box of luxury chocolates as they pulse glowing beams of golden light out of their asses while listening to little lambs bleating in a solfeggio frequency.
I mean who has parents that good?
You’d hope that after thirty-odd torturous sessions I might have expunged the legacy of generations of dismal genetic luck, socioeconomic misfortune, terrible parenting, supernatural disturbances, crappy DNA, wonky brain chemistry, bad spirits, planetary misalignment and divine retribution that have made my family tree so darkly colourful.
But apparently not.
As Bill said, it is only a ride. It’s good advice for both life and tripping balls. And I’ve tripped as much as the next dude but it doesn’t seem to help once I’ve gulped and gagged down 150ml of the Amazon jungle’s finest.
I’m toast. Served up crispy and burnt for the preternaturally-nasty spine-chilling beings of my mind, or the underworld, or the afterlife, or the devil’s intestines—or wherever the hell it is that they come from—to play with me as they please.
And play with me they do. Pulling out organs, nailing me to crosses, cursing me with psychosis, and whatever other sneaky tricks they can scheme between their conniving little bastard selves. The more traumatic, the better, it seems.
But still, one day, I know I’ll drink again. I’ll suffer for countless eternal hours wondering what on earth I was thinking. And then perhaps I’ll feel fantastic afterwards and evangelically espouse the glories of the great mystical tea, until such time as those heady days wear off, and the great fear slowly creeps again.
A lot has been written about the therapeutic efficacy and transformative power of the visionary Amazonian brew ayahuasca. I myself have enthusiastically espoused the benefits of the vile tasting drink online and to those I feel able to talk openly with. Ayahuasca has attained cult-like status among those with an interest in entheogens, spirituality and self development.
Its use has been increasing every year and what was once the sole pursuit of shamans and the indigenous peoples of the Amazonian region has now become a large-scale industry, attracting many ‘ayahuasca tourists’ from all over the world to countries such as Peru, Equador, Colombia and Brazil. Use of the brew has also become prevalent far from the land of its origin, through Santo Daime churches around the world and with other groups and individuals practising ayahuasca healing works inside and outside of a traditional framework.
In the summer of 2008 I nervously entered a village hall in the south of England to attend my first ayahuasca ceremony. It was the culmination of an unlikely and remarkable set of circumstances, and my life was never to be the same again. Since then I have partaken of ayahuasca on and off for a number of years, having drunk it a total of about thirty times both in the UK and in Peru. Given the reputation ayahusaca sometimes seems to have—so often being spoken of in revered terms and considered by some to be the ultimate of all self development and healing tools—I think it’s interesting to take a step back and consider as objectively as possible what changes regular use of ayahuasca really can invoke. I am not concerned here with describing the experience itself in detail but rather in discussing the impact that regular participation in the ayahuasca experience can have on an individual’s life.
Of course all my views have been filtered through my own perceptions and interpretations and therefore you could say they might not be more generally representative, though having discussed my experiences with others I’m confident what follows is expressive of the experience for many people. I’m not claiming to be some ayahuasca guru, I’m just a dude who’s drunk ayahuasca a bunch of times reflecting on my experience.
For those unfamiliar with the ingredients or experience of the brew, a brief outline follows; those already familiar are welcome to skip this paragraph. Ayahuasca is most commonly made by slowly brewing in water a combination of the vine Banisteriopsis Caapi with Chacruna leaves until a concentrated putrid brown liquid is achieved. Other ingredients may be also added. The leaves contain DMT (diemthyltriptamine) which is made orally active during the brewing process by the presence of an MAOI (monoamine oxidase inhibitor) in the vine. This drink is typically consumed in amounts of around 25 to 100 ml, traditionally in a ceremonial setting. The DMT is the primary component responsible for the ‘psychedelic’ nature of the experience, during which the participant might experience strong visions or hallucinations; the experience of travelling to and seeing other worlds, dimensions, times and realms; encounters with entities that might be benevolent or threatening in nature; a strong sense of empathy, fear, love or other emotions; receiving information and teachings regarding their life, relationships, the nature of reality, and much more. I won’t concern myself further with the chemical composition of the brew or the phenomenological details of the experience but instead refer the interested reader to Erowid for more information.
Ayahuasca demands much from those who choose to drink it. It can be an uncomfortable or even terrifying experience and is almost certainly unlike anything an ayahuasca newbie will have experienced before, though experience with LSD, ketamine or psilocybin will provide some helpful reference points. While often invoking challenging experiences, it can also offer glimpses of blissful states of mind far beyond what is normally possible for most people.
One striking feature of the experience per se is that when you are ‘in it’ it often feels inherently and extremely valuable in nature, as though by merely participating you are engaging in something of fundamental importance, perhaps of even more importance than anything else you might ever have done – at least that’s how it can seem. In addition it is also often quite simply the most extraordinary thing you will have ever taken part in, often being ridiculously entertaining, humbling, shocking, completely ‘far out’, aesthetically and philosophically stimulating, profound and pregnant with meaning and value, and potentially overwhelming of the senses.
But what happens in the weeks and months after a ceremony? The unfolding of the experience over time is complex and can be influenced by many factors, but there are some recurrent themes. One of the most valuable of these is that using ayahuasca often bestows upon one an extraordinary ability to heal relationships with others. I know from first hand experience that breakthroughs can be made in relations with parents, lovers and people you have fallen out with, no matter how unlikely this might seem beforehand.
Part of the reason for this seems to be the extremely empathetic nature of the experience, enabling you to understand the perspective of the other and to make sense of their experience. In addition the experience provides what I would describe as an energetic release; the negative emotions associated with the relationship are no longer felt so strongly, as though purged from the felt emotional body. In their place can be found a desire for harmony, an ability to forgive and an acceptance of one’s own wrongdoings, alongside a willingness to admit them, at least to yourself. I have benefited profoundly from this aspect of ayahuasca.
Somehow drinking ayahuasca seems to cultivate in the user a greater affinity with nature and a deeper appreciation of our biological identity. As a result we feel both more ‘human’, and more embedded in nature. We become more aware that we are an expression of nature and evolution. The sense of separation from our natural origins dissolves and the natural world is re-experienced as home, sacred, of great importance, and essential to preserve. A distaste for overexposure to technology and hectic urban environments may also develop.
A related extension to this is awakening to a desire to consume more natural food and drink, and to eliminate unnatural products from the diet. I know many people who have transitioned to a vegetarian or raw food diet as a result of drinking ayahuasca. In addition, the preference for consuming alcohol and other drugs is often diminished or disappears. There is a greater perception of the body and mind of the individual as being something to be looked after and nourished.
Ayahuasca may provide the individual with a greater sense of meaning to their life, as though what once may have seemed senseless can now be seen to be part of a teleological path or life-long journey. Often the path involves goals such as healing oneself and relationships, or finding a way to live that has more meaning and makes a positive contribution to the world, or is a positive expression of the individual. Basically, it can turn you into a bit of a hippie.
Ayahuasca work is shadow work par excellence. Psychotherapists recognise the importance of integrating unhealthy, unacknowldged or repressed aspects of the self through bringing them into conscious awareness, and though there are many methods to do this there may be no greater tool than ayahuasca. The uncomfortable or even downright terrifying features of an ayahuasca experience are part of this process and seem to facilitate an acceptance of our darker or previously denied human traits. It is understood that these are equally valid parts of one’s whole being whose presence must be acknowledged and integrated for a healthy and balanced mind.
In my experience, regular ayahuasca use (in my case as in a frequency of approximately once or twice every two to four months) enhances the ability to cope with the visicitudes of life. A greater capacity for handling adversity may be available and it may be possible to detect a sense of peace and that ultimately ‘things are okay’, even amongst the drama of a relationship ending or other upheavals common to the human experience. Perhaps most remarkably, I know of several instances where use of ayahuasca has healed serious long term depression and helped people in the most desperate of predicaments immeasurably. It is anecdotes like this that have lent ayahuasca it’s cult like status and reputation.
Well all this sounds pretty great, hey, what’s not to like? Well maybe, but it’s worth bearing a few things in mind, as, like with most things, it’s not quite that simple. Perhaps most obviously, drinking ayahuasca will not stop crappy things happening. This is life and shit happens. The journey is not smooth; hearts may be broken, dark spells may visit, jobs may be lost, depression may return. While ayahuasca may certainly offer an enhanced ability to deal with difficult times it will not stop them happening. Ayahuasca is not a ”cure all’. While it certainly seems to peel back and heal layers of our selves, new challenges will surface as new layers are encountered.
The development of more holistic values and a desire for a less conventional lifestyle may prompt greater dissatisfaction with one’s social circle, job, home city and the collective values and morals of society and culture at large. Ayahuasca often grants a vision of just how good things could be, if they weren’t so fucked up. Returning home after a ceremony and realising how far from this ideal the world is can be disheartening. A greater sense of alienation may also be experienced, as the ayahuasca initiate joins the small club of those who cannot see the world the way they did before. This could be harnessed as a catalyst for making positive changes but it must be acknowledged that the process is not guaranteed to be easy.
The deeper life journey that ayahuasca use seems to set people on can be said to be richer in some ways, but might still involve painful lessons that have to be endured along the way. At times great pain can seem so senseless, but at other perhaps fleeting or extended moments you can glimpse a purpose or a teaching in the way your heart or sense of self has been cracked so nakedly and wide open. Ayahusaca increases our insight in these areas. On the ayahuasca journey our sense of what is worthwhile engaging with might change, as conventional distractions such as addictions and involvement in popular culture cease to fulfill, and a more essential and authentic vision of oneself is birthed.
Ayahuasca can also be seductive, and new initiates may experience a period where the virtues of ayahuasca are elevated to a degree where it is not acknowledged that hard graft remains and life may still be tough. Ayahuasca may be seen as the ‘holy grail’ of self development and not as one of many tools available to us. In addition to this, strong visions or received information may be interpreted too literally, resulting in a distorted notion of reality and a warped sense of self. A lack of critical discrimination might result in the literal belief that beings or entities encountered in a vision are actually real, ignoring the possibility that they may be symbolic representations of aspects of the self or a personal issue. It would be easy to become over-attached to the story of ourselves that we gain so much insight into in ceremony, and talking too openly and evangelically about your literal belief in what you experienced in ceremony can annoy people and make you seem a bit crazy.
In my experience, Ayahuasca is no panacea. Ayahuasca does not automatically make you a nice person. Years of Ayahuasca use will not mean you no longer have to deal with problems or even really heavy, burdensome troubles. Drinking ayahuasca does not stop you making mistakes. Ayahuasca use will make you confront aspects of your self you don’t like. Ayahuasca could force you to make uncomfortable changes to your life. Drinking ayahuasca does not result in an ‘end point’ where everything is miraculously fixed.
And yet, Ayahuasca could also gift a deeply profound and divine experience of life. It may well heal your broken heart, your broken relationships, or the way you hate yourself. It could help you to discover or commit to something you’re passionate about, or imbue life with new meaning. It could heal your sadness. It really could be that new beginning.
The ayahuasca journey is complex; some aspects are of great benefit and other aspects present their own challenges, and what I’ve listed is by no means exhaustive. To conclude, and to try to answer the question posed in the title—can ayahuasca really make you happy?—I really want to say ‘yes’. It’s a yes with a caveat though – there is every chance, but it’s a bumpy road. But does it make life richer, and pave the way for a more profound engagement with our world and experience, whatever that may entail? On this we can emphatically confirm it does.
In my opinion ayahuasca is an incredible tool for assisting with the overcoming of things that make our lives difficult, and for gaining meaning in a world that often makes no sense. There is a reason ayahuasca is known as ‘medicine’ and as a healer. Combined with a regular meditation practice and support from others who know the brew, it is even more effective, and anyone who feels called to explore this world and is ready for and accepting of challenge and change can be sure that there is potentially much to gain.
In my humble opinion, the ‘magic’ mushroom – for that’s what it is – used in the right way, is one of the more remarkable tools for psychological wellbeing available to the human race. And yes I am well aware that to many people this statement will seem ridiculous, preposterous or even irresponsible. Indeed to some this is a radical proposition, but I would suggest it only appears like this because of the way the cultural paradigm of our time has led us to be ignorant of the value of non-ordinary states of awareness.
Allow me to explain. Ingesting psilocybin – the psychoactive compound found around the world in magic mushrooms – in the right settling, with the right people, with the right intention, offers a uniquely psychotherapeutic experience. It offers the chance to gain insight and understanding, to let go of the experience of suffering, to connect profoundly with nature, to psychologically cleanse and refresh ourselves, and to marvel at the wonderous universe we inhabit. This is not hyperbole by the way.
Of course some people in different parts of the world have known this for hundreds or even thousands of years, but it’s only now that through scientific research – currenty the only means by which anything useful can hope to be taken seriously by culture at large, institutions and policy makers – the therapeutic efficacy of the magic mushroom is starting to be demonstrated in a way that could eventually lead to a new era in treating depression and increasing wellbeing.
Thanks to a new wave of psychedelic research in recent years, the therapeutic potential of psilocybin is starting to be recognised. London based Prof. David Nutt and Robin Carhart-Harris have conducted studies that lead them to believe that psilocybin could be useful for the treatment of depression; studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore have recorded an improvement in the mental wellbeing of research participants who ingested psilocybin; at Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center, Los Angeles, terminally ill patients who used psilocybin as part of their psychological treatment programme reported a decrease in their fear of death and were better able to come to terms with their situation.
Psilocybin is not the only psychedelic substance that offers such therapeutic benefits, but in comparison with it’s more forthright cousin, D.M.T. (being increasingly used around the world, particularly in the form of the amazonian brew ayahuasca), it offers a much more gentle and accessible experience. Psilocybin affords many of the increasingly well documented effects of the psychedelics, with less of the anxiety and physical symptoms, and a generally less challenging experience overall. For this reason it perhaps offers the most potential for use as a tool to improve wellbeing on a larger scale.
As well as this, use of psilocybin can invoke profound mystical states of awareness and can be used as a tool for deepening spiritual practice. In combination with a regular meditation practice the use of psilocybin can assist in prolonging elevated states of mind and may reinforce mindful ways of thinking. Users of psilocybin report discovering deeper layers of themselves, and often discover that life is more meaningful than before. Great value is experienced in connecting with a state that seems more ‘real’ than that of ordinary awareness. Wisdom teachings regarding how best to live one’s life may be received, or understood more profoundly.
It sounds almost too good to be true, but recent research is starting to provide the evidence to support such claims. Even mainstream news platforms reported a recent study by Johns Hopkins University that suggested that ingesting psilocybin just once resulted in profound positive changes in personality which could still be felt a year later. Of course in cultures such as ours that do not value elevated and profound states of grace and awareness, this mode of experiencing the world and enhancing our relationship with life may not catch on anytime soon. But a new appreciation of the therapeutic value of psilocybin could plant the seed for a change in the public and political perception of the value of non-ordinary states of consciousness.
Of course the issues of personal wellbeing and mental health are complex and interconnected with wider issues that need addressing within our societies. But I know from personal experience how valuable the use of psychedelics can be, both to those who suffer as well as those who wish to thrive. The types of insights and psychological change that psilocybin and other psychedelics bestow upon the user are such that there could hardly be a more appropriate or powerful tool for initiating the changes we’d all like to see, both in ourselves and consequently in our world. It’s sad that people who choose to utilise such effective and therapeutic tools for the betterment of themselves must commit a criminal act to do so, but with time I’m hopeful that further demonstration of the benefits of such activity will see a change in our attitudes towards it.
(This article originally appeared on the website www.knowdrugs.net)
So I’m lying on my back on a foam mattress and it doesn’t matter whether my eyes are open or closed – I can’t see what’s around me for the intensity of the visions is overwhelming. Extraordinary colours, patterns and shapes appear before me, endlessly morphing and perpetually renewing. As well as witnessing this numinous light show, what seems like profound knowledge is being imparted to me. I’m being taught deep truths about how to live a better life; I’m reliving and letting go of the pain associated with distant memories; I’m empathically experiencing the pain of others throughout history and in different parts of the world and learning the importance of compassion. In the following days and weeks I feel lighter, more optimistic about life, more energetic, and the sadness I used to experience is no longer there. Something quite remarkable has happened.
I’ve been drinking the Amazonian brew ayahuasca and it’s a good job it was in Peru because if this was taking place where I live – in the UK – it would be considered criminal activity and the facilitators of the ceremony could face serious class A drug offences. The ingredient for which ayahuasca is an illegal ‘drug’ is Dimethyltryptamine, – also known as DMT – a naturally occurring compound which is produced by the human body and by many plants and animals. In Peru they prefer to think of ayahuasca as a ‘medicine’, a renowned healer of innumerable psychological, emotional, spiritual and physical problems. I’m certainly not the only person to benefit in this way – countless people testify to the healing properties of ayahuasca and other plant medicines, or substances and methods that utilise altered states of consciousness. A growing research base is slowly documenting their ability to considerably help with problems such as addiction, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and more. However, the case remains that in most countries outside of the Amazon people who wish to use this powerful therapeutic tool must do so in secrecy and face the possibility of spending time in jail. Just recently in England Peter Aziz was sentenced to 15 months in prison for holding Ayahuasca ceremonies.
Having experienced the profound benefits that Ayahuasca can potentially gift to those who drink it, it saddens me that something with such capacity for therapeutic value is placed beyond the reach of those who could benefit from it due to it’s legal status. It seems that whether through ideology or ignorance, or a combination of the two, Ayahuasca and similar substances continue to be thought of as odd, dangerous chemicals that should be avoided. Due to the fact that the predominant ideological paradigm in our culture denies that altered states of consciousness could possibly do any good for anything at all this is perhaps no surprise.
Of course, one must treat such powerful tools with respect, and the setting and way in which they should be used is critically important. Participants might also need support during the time that they are integrating their experiences. And ayahuasca and other altered state-inducing substances are certainly not for the faint hearted – though sometimes blissful they can also invoke a tough, frightening ordeal which can take the user to psychologically challenging places. All this plays a role in the healing process. But as commentators such Graham Hancock have explained, sovereignty over one’s own consciousness should not be withheld, and for the benefit of millions of people around the world who suffer from debilitating psychological problems such as addiction, depression and anxiety, it’s time to consider whether instead of being outlawed, these plant medicines should in fact be utilised.